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Published: 2006/04/16
by Chris Gardner

Exchange Session, vol. 1 – Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

Domino Records 87

The principals:

Kieran Hebden – the Four Tet guy, a professional knob twiddler. As Four
Tet, he weaves a fabulously organic drum sound into the mix. Some people
call his stuff folktronica. Hell if I know why.

Steve Reid – reputed jazz drummer with ties to Miles Davis, the Rippingtons,
and Supertramp (and Fela Kuti and Sun Ra and Martha and the Vandellas). Reid has been known to rock one of the world's finest
mullets. No joke. Check out his (percussionist) bio. It's
the 8th Wonder.

The first few times I listened to this, I spent most of my time choking back
vomit. Stretches of this entirely improvised, three track session are
nausea-inducing in their freedom. Reid churns along with only the loosest
sense of time, and Hebden's twitchy board work erupts so sporadically that
there's no use anticipating his direction, his tone, or his next move. To
some ears, this may well be the worst of all possible worlds, the seemingly
static amusicality of free jazz married to the sketchy skree-sqwonk of the
digital domain, and to be sure there are stretches where this feels (on
first listen) like a musical nightmare. Something more, though still
something shy of reason or order, emerges upon repeated listenings.

At 6:37, "Morning Prayer" is the shortest of the three tracks here, and it
is the loosest of the bunch. There are vague suggestions of an awakening as
the track opens, but very little develops. Reid shimmers away on the
cymbals and Hebden twiddles haphazardly, casting ideas out and off rather
than exploring anything in depth. There is a canvas here, an undercurrent
of sound with some flutishness, but there is little movement, little
development, little exploration.

"Soul Oscillations" initially offers the same fare, open and ungrounded
space sprinkled with ideas, but something vaguely thematic emerges between
the six and seven minute mark. Hebden dabbles with a recurrent bit (can you
call it a riff?) as the rhythm congeals to something less than a solid but
more than a liquid (imagine warm, wet Play-Doh). It doesn't last long of
course, and the fourteen-plus minute voyage explores many a nook and cranny before it resolves, but it is a flash, a speck of order in a piece that
feels otherwise nearly rootless.

To say then that "Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind" is the most
orderly of the three tracks says very little. But Reid here seems most
willing to play rhythmically, and Hebden maintains a steady if neutral
backdrop, a flattish undertone. Hebden even piddles with horny sounds,
replicating the skronky impulsiveness of free jazz players.

The connection between these two artists is elusive. It isn't rhythmic; it
isn't thematic; it isn't compositional; it isn't tonal. Perhaps it is a
connection founded on mood, on spirit, on some ephemeral like-mindedness.
Perhaps it's a mutual madness. Perhaps it's a shared desire to be
difficult. Like most free jazz, the dense inaccessibility of this session
will drive away more listeners than it invites, and I'm trapped in the push
and pull of it all. Often, I find myself fighting the disc. I want them to
rein it in, to offer a cogent idea, to throw me a rope. I want Reid to
maintain a rhythm; I want Hebden to stop stabbing my ears with skreech
daggers. I want them to make music not sound, to play by the damn rules.

In my more open moments, when I'm willing to let the music be, to let it
wash over me with its jagged edges, grating and slicing me as it skitters
jerkily along, something begins to happen. It serves to some degree as
counterpoint, asserting that the natural state of things is chaotic and
discordant rather than tidily digestible. It's a reminder that it's
more difficult to make this near-music — to stay apart, to refuse to
converge — than it is to play together, that constraints make things easy,
that it's tougher to stay just shy of order, to evade sense and seek that
non-traditional, ineffable connection. Ornette Coleman used to say he could
only judge the success of his free jazz combos by the emotional impact the
sprawling, discordant work had on the players and on the audience. Granted,
this session pisses me off more often than it delights me, but perhaps
that's the point. While so much digital music drifts into faceless
ambience, the work here steps forward and slaps you around a bit, and maybe there's a place for that too.

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